Putting the 16GB “Pro” Myth to Rest

Apple’s latest MacBook Pro line is limited to 16GB due to energy (and likely heat) constraints, and that’s gotten a lot of people complaining that it simply isn’t enough for “real pros”. Ironically, many of the people saying that don’t quite fall into what many others would consider a “real pro” themselves; at least based on the target demographic of Apple’s “pro” line, which has traditionally been geared toward working professionals such as photographers, producers, engineers, and the like (not managers and bloggers). But even so, let’s take a look at what it takes to really pin your MacBook Pro’s memory, from a “professional’s” perspective.

I fired up a bunch of apps and projects (more than I’d ever work on at one time) in every app I could possibly think of on my MacBook Pro. These included apps you’d find professional photographers, designers, software engineers, penetration testers, reverse engineers, and other types running – and I ran them all at once, and switched between them, making “professionally-type-stuff” happen as I go.

Here’s a list of everything I ran at once:

  • VMwarei Fusion: Two running virtual machines (Windows 10, macOS Sierra)
  • Adobe Photoshop CC: Four 1+gb 36 MP professional, multi-layer photos
  • Adobe InDesign CC: A 22 page photography-intensive project
  • Xcode: Four production Objective-C projects, all cleaned and rebuilt
  • Microsoft PowerPoint: A slide deck presentation
  • Microsoft Word: A 20+ page document with graphics
  • MachOView: Analyzing a daemon binary
  • Mozilla FireFox: Viewing a website
  • Safari: viewing a different website
  • Preview: Three PDF books
  • Hopper Disassembler: Performing an analysis on a binary
  • WireShark: Performing a live network capture as I do all of this
  • IDA Pro 64-bit: Analyzing a 64-bit intel binary
  • Apple Mail: Viewing four mailboxes
  • Tweetbot: Reading all the flames and trolls in my mentions
  • iBooks: Currently viewing an ebook I paid for
  • Skype: Logged in and idling
  • Terminal: A few sessions idling
  • iTunes
  • Little Flocker
  • Little Snitch
  • OverSight
  • Finder
  • Messages
  • Veracrypt
  • Activity Monitor
  • Path Finder
  • Console
  • Probably a lot I’ve missed

The result? I ran out of things to do before I ever ran out of RAM. I only ever made it to 14.5GB before the system decided to start paging out, so I didn’t even have the change to burn up all that delicious RAM.

screen-shot-2016-11-04-at-4-39-37-pm

I got most of this running, except for Adobe InDesign, before the system hit the warning zone and began paging. Once I ran Adobe InDesign, macOS did what it was supposed to do and started paging out before I hit a hard limit. After InDesign finished loading my project, I then ended up with even less physical RAM in use.

screen-shot-2016-11-04-at-4-41-54-pm

I would have had to open a dozen or more additional projects in order to start redlining to the point of using up all my RAM, but even that likely wouldn’t have gotten me there. The manuscripts for all of my books put together are only maybe 20 MB in size. More PowerPoint slide decks only consume a few MB a piece. I’d be hard pressed to burn another gig and a half unless I opened up every last one of my books and presentations. And if I’m that serious about writing several books at once, chances are I’m not interested in using half the other apps I had open.

A couple apps you won’t see on this list are Chrome and Slack. Both of these applications have widespread reports of being memory pigs, and in my opinion you should boycott them until the developers learn how to write them to play nicer with memory. You can’t fault Apple for poorly written applications, and if Apple did give you 32 GB of RAM just for them, it wouldn’t matter. Poorly written apps are going to continue sucking down as much memory as possible until you’re out. So it’s reasonable to say that if you’re running poorly written applications, your mileage will definitely vary. RAM is only one half the equation: programmers need to know how to use it respectfully.

Many users, though not all, who might see themselves sucking down 16GB+ of memory might consider they could have a lot of unnecessary crapware running at startup that they don’t need. Check your /Library/LaunchDaemons and /Library/LaunchAgents folders as well as your own LaunchAgents folder in ~/Library, and check your login items too. You might also check your system for malware, adware, and bloatware. Lastly, make sure you’ve updated your applications to the latest versions. Memory leaks are common bugs, and if you’re running an older, leakier version of an application, no amount of RAM upgrade is going to make things better.

I am sure there are some genuinely heavy users who will undoubtedly chew down more than 16GB of RAM, and this is by no means an attempt to minimize their concerns. Working with video and audio production is one area I can see this becoming a reality, but I don’t own Final Cut Pro or Logic Pro to demonstrate. I have used them though and can say this much, while they do in fact use a lot of resources, Apple has designed them to be pretty good about keeping a number of operations disk bound. This is where the MacBook Pro’s migration to solid state storage plays in concert with their RAM decisions. Both swap and file based resources are now much faster than they used to be. Often times, your applications may be swapping (or using a scratch disk) and you won’t even be able to tell with an SSD. Solid state storage has a number of other obvious benefits, and quite frankly, I’d rather have an SSD and 16GB RAM limit over 64GB and a spinning platter disk any day.

I have no doubt that there will be some edge cases where a user legitimately uses up more than 16GB of RAM, and Apple really should consider refreshing their line of Mac Pros for such needs; the MacBook Pro is designed to be portable and energy conscious first, and I think that makes a lot of sense. It’s not a desktop machine, and it’s not going to act like a desktop machine as long as it’s operating within these constraints. With that said, I think many (not all) of the arguments about people using up all of their 16GB RAM are caused by factors that are within their control – whether it’s running crummy software, not adequately maintaining their startup items, not properly configuring their applications, or possibly even malware. Get those things out of the way first, and even if you’re still a high memory user, I bet your performance will be a lot more tolerable than it is now.

The MacBook Pro, as I’ve demonstrated, is more than capable of running a ridiculous number of “pro” apps without crossing the 16GB limit. It is, without a doubt, capable of adequately serving a vast majority of resource-hungry professionals such as myself, without breaking a sweat. The only thing, incidentally, breaking a sweat, are the people complaining about the number 16 on social media without actually understanding just how far that number gets you.

Update – Pushing the Limits

I finally got my MBP to do a teeny bit of back and forth swapping as I pushed up close (15GB) to the 16GB memory limit. I have to open almost every last thing on my system. Here’s what I ran:

  • VMwarei Fusion: Three running virtual machines (Windows 10, macOS Sierra, Debian Linux)
  • Adobe Photoshop CC: Four 1+gb 36 MP professional, multi-layer photos
  • Adobe InDesign CC: A 22 page photography-intensive project
  • Adobe Bridge CC: Browsing a folder with 163GB photos (307 images total)
  • DxO Optics Pro: (Pro-photography workflow software) Editing a folder of images
  • Xcode: Five production Objective-C projects, all cleaned and rebuilt
  • Microsoft PowerPoint: A slide deck presentation
  • Microsoft Word: Fifteen different chapters (separate .doc files) from my last book
  • Microsoft Excel: A single workbook
  • MachOView: Analyzing a daemon binary
  • Mozilla FireFox: Four different websites, each in a separate window
  • Safari: Eleven different websites, each in a separate window
  • Preview: Three PDF books, including one very graphic intensive book
  • Hopper Disassembler: Performing an analysis on a binary
  • WireShark: Performing a live network capture as I do all of this
  • IDA Pro 64-bit: Analyzing a 64-bit intel binary
  • Apple Mail: Viewing four mailboxes
  • Tweetbot: Reading all the flames and trolls in my mentions
  • iBooks: Currently viewing an ebook I paid for
  • Skype: Logged in and idling
  • Terminal: A few sessions idling
  • iTunes
  • Little Flocker
  • Little Snitch
  • OverSight
  • Finder
  • Messages
  • FaceTime
  • Calendar
  • Contacts
  • Photos
  • Veracrypt
  • Activity Monitor
  • Path Finder
  • Console
  • Probably a lot I’ve missedscreen-shot-2016-11-04-at-7-47-32-pm

Once again, the system began doing its job and paging out before I ever hit that 16GB max. At this point, I stopped launching applications and documents.

Conclusion, again, is that it takes an enormous amount of work to burn up 16GB of RAM on your MacBook Pro, unless you’re running a lot of poorly written apps that hog memory, have bloatware running at startup, or possibly doing a lot of advanced, high-end video editing (which I hope to experiment with at some point).

Activity Monitor is a great way to see what’s chewing on your system, and a good starting point for figuring out what apps are causing problems for you.

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